In 1970, famed fashion columnist and editor Diana Vreeland was the first person to truly understand the significance of the dress designs brought to her by Diane von Furstenberg, then a young princess newly arrived in New York City. “I think your clothes are absolutely smashing,” Vreeland told her, though it would take another four years before von Furstenberg would strike upon the design that would make her a household name, practically overnight.
It was Vreeland’s encouragement that von Furstenberg cites as “the most important thing that happened in my career,” she said. And it is a letter of endorsement from Vreeland that opens “Journey of a Dress,” an equal parts fashion exhibition and powerful brand statement that von Furstenberg is now showing in Los Angeles. The dress in question is, of course, the wrap dress, a simple design of printed jersey that closes like a bathrobe and ties at the waist, which von Furstenberg created when she was 26.
The wrap dress turns 40 this year, and, like its designer, is an icon of fashion. Sociologists discuss it as a symbol of women’s liberation. Something like 10 million of the dresses have been sold. They have defined an era in films, from Taxi Driver (worn by Cybill Shepherd, in 1976) to American Hustle (worn by Amy Adams, in 2013). And yet von Furstenberg -- until plans for the exhibition were discussed -- occasionally resented its success.
“I always took it for granted,” she said at a preview on Friday. “I do other things, too.”
With its anniversary, however, and the creation of the exhibition (including more than 200 versions of wrap dresses) “I realized its impact,” she said. “I created it, but then it had a life of its own. It gave me my freedom, but it also gave freedom and happiness to a lot of other women.” (The exhibition opens Jan. 11 at the Wilshire May Company Building at 6067 Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles.)
“Journey of a Dress” tells that story and more, with an exhibition design by Bill Katz and production design by Stefan Beckman (who creates elaborate runway sets for Marc Jacobs). An opening gallery and a candy-pink entryway include portraits of von Furstenberg by Andy Warhol, Chuck Close, and Francesco Clemente, as well as a new work by Dustin Yellin that shows pieces of a dress embedded in layers of glass, “like an apparition floating, sort of timeless and spaceless, existing without a past or a future,” as Yellin said at the opening.
"Timeless" is the impression you get from seeing the original wrap dresses alongside more contemporary pieces, assembled here in one large room, mounted in groups on diamond-shaped pedestals against a vivid floor-to-ceiling backdrop of von Furstenberg’s most famous prints (blue snakeskin, red leopard spots, her signature transformed into graffiti). The dresses, including one original black and white leopard print wrap cut just above the knee, looked as powerful and confident today as they would have in 1974, which reminded von Furstenberg of the first message she created to promote them: “Feel like a woman, wear a dress!”
“The dress, the prints, what I said – and me – have stuck around all this time,” she said, “and all of them are still relevant.”
1. On Her Iconic Wrap Dress
“This is the 40th anniversary of the wrap dress, the one thing I owe everything to,” von Furstenberg said. “She paid for all my bills, and in fact, in French, we call the wrap dress the ‘robe porte-feuille,’ which means ‘wallet.’ It paid for everything. It paid for my children’s education. It paid for my freedom. It gave me my fame and it gave me the American dream.”
2. How Women Should Feel in Her Clothes
“I wanted a wrap dress army, just like the Qin army of terracotta warriors. I love the idea of the woman warrior, and you see that also in the pose of the mannequins. It’s strong. Strength was the most important thing for me. That’s what I like to get out of women.”
3. On Creating Iconic Clothing
“The wrap dress is popular culture. I never really tried with this dress to make a fashion statement, but this dress is now talked about in sociology classes. It is associated with liberation.”
4. On What She's Really Selling
“Confidence is so important. Now I’ve started a new period of my company that is about the legacy. Clearly with this exhibition, I hope I leave a legacy behind, and the legacy really is about celebrating freedom, empowering women, and selling confidence. That’s what I do. I sell confidence. And sometimes I give it away. You don’t always have to pay for it.”
5. On Her Chuck Close Portrait
“You know, it’s my body of work-it is what it is. That’s why I like the Chuck Close here at the front of the show, especially here in Hollywood, where everybody is so done and redone. It’s like 'Wow, it’s so bold and strong.' In that picture, I just had my face beaten down in a ski accident.”
6. On the Exhibit's Andy Warhol Portraits
“When I first came to New York, wherever I would go-and I went out a lot-Andy Warhol was there. The truth is, Andy was very shy and Andy was a voyeur. He had his tape recorder and his camera, and he would photograph you. But he was such a great artist and such a visionary. He did everything before anyone-the reality show, the icon, the branding. I can only imagine what Andy would have done with Instagram and Facebook. He would have gone nuts.”